I was recently asked the question if it was ethical for a genealogist to use a publicly posted tree for resource information when searching for a family's roots.
Well, of course it is not ethically correct to use what someone else has researched and claim as your own. I would never do such a thing. But....
What I have done on many occasions is use that information I have found in a publicly posted or printed family tree to bridge a gap in my own research. Okay, so here I am at a point that I can't find any further research on Great-great-great-grandpa Smith. I have no idea where to go to from here. So what do I do?
I search through the millions of posted and printed family trees at our resources. If I locate him, then I will record on paper his ancestry according to that tree. [You will be surprised that 99% of family trees posted have no resources listed, they are totally unsourced]. I DO NOT add them into the working tree. This is all done in my notepaper by hand at this point.
Next, I will begin to attempt to disprove that this next generation belongs to this family. Yes, you read that right. I first attempt to DISPROVE the connection. When I find that I can disprove them, I know they don't belong here and can scratch them from my notepaper and they don't even get a second glance.
However, if I have worked on them diligently and find that I cannot disprove them, then I will attempt to PROVE their connection. This can sometimes take days or weeks, as any genealogist will tell you. Providing the proof is the ONLY way you can add someone to a working tree.
Once I have proven them into the tree, then I will give credit where credit is due. I give the person who published the tree all the credit for finding the individual and putting them in their tree. If they have the tree posted online, give all of the known information about the publisher as possible for the source of the information. Let's say John Doe published the "Doe Family Tree" on Ancestry.com, then I will put the source as "The Doe Family Tree" and John Doe's user name "jdoe1967" as the publisher, and then list the website page where it is found. [Elizabeth Shown Mills has an excellent series of books out about documenting sources!]
Next, I will put all of the information that I have found on the individual, as well as all of the sources for that information [birth, death records, marriage records, tax rolls, will, land grants, military records, etc.]. However, I NEVER use just the information from someones posted tree.
If I can't provide proof that someone belongs in a tree, then I just won't add them to it.
I also never upload a gedcom into my working or saved tree. I just don't find it ethical. Merging all of the information from someone elses work just doesn't quite jive with me. [Also, there's the fact that so many people never source their information, or I find virtually too many mistakes to make it worthwhile.]
Yes, I'm a picky genealogist. I want my work to be totally ME. When a client purchases MY RESEARCH I want them to know that there is no other research out there exactly like mine. I give my research efforts my best and undivided attention.
I don't believe there has ever been a client yet who has not received 125% effort [or better!] on my part. I don't say that to brag, I say it because I want every client to find complete satisfaction in my work.
So, to get back to the original question: Is it ethical to use posted or printed family trees when performing research? My answer has to be both yes and no! Give credit where credit is due. And never take a posted or printed family tree to be without error. Disprove and prove before ever using the information from another tree. And if you do use the information, provide excellent documentation giving the poster or publisher all the credit for putting that individual where they belong on the tree. Lastly, add you own proof as further documentation that you have proven that individuals rightful place in the genealogy branch.
Keep the great questions coming! You can email me at:
firstname.lastname@example.org or at our Mountain Genealogists email at:
Hope you're having a great weekend!